Is sugar the new evil? Arguments for and against the grain

Lobbyists say taxing added sugar can achieve results, but international bodies haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet

Health Reporter

Not very long ago, the question would have seemed absurd. Now it is on the lips of respected scientists; MPs are beginning to talk of “a war on sugar”, and this week even England’s chief medical officer – one of the most esteemed voices in the public debate on health – has said sugar may have to be, like the old enemy tobacco, taxed in order to protect the nation’s health.

There came a time in the evolution of public attitudes to smoking, when the doctors had been shouting for long enough that the public was broadly aware of the risks and the only question left for Government was: what do we about it?

Some believe we are now at the same point in our attitudes to sugar. Others – largely but not exclusively representatives of the food and drink industry – say the entire debate has been skewed by scaremongering.

More or less everyone agrees that eating too much sugar is bad for you. There is also no doubt obesity is a growing problem which is putting a significant, avoidable burden on the NHS by increasing the rates of diabetes, heart disease and other long-term conditions.

But to what extent is sugar – rather than saturated fats, or salt, carbohydrates or proteins, or any of the other bogey-men of modern diets – the cause of obesity and how much should we worry about it?

Yesterday, hopes of achieving anything resembling clarity from health authorities were confounded once again. The World Health Organisation (WHO), widely expected to halve the recommended sugar intake in new draft guidance, instead said it would continue to recommend that sugar make up no more than 10 per cent of the energy we consume (or about 50g daily), while adding that cutting this to five per cent would have “additional benefits”. The decision will now go out to public consultation.

Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool and the man who made headlines by comparing sugar to tobacco earlier this year, said that he suspected “dirty work” on the part of food and drinks companies might lie behind the WHO’s less than resounding message.

Professor Capewell, a leading figure in the new medical pressure group Action on Sugar said that, while it was not known exactly how much of our current obesity epidemic – a third of children and two thirds of UK adults overweight or obese – was caused by sugar, there was now no doubt the white stuff makes an “important contribution” and one that could be easily prevented.

Public Health England (PHE) figures show that 11.6 per cent of the calories consumed by an average adult in the UK, and 15.2 per cent of those consumed by children, come from sugar – that can be from sugar added to food, but also from sugars naturally occurring in things like fruit juices and honey.

It’s the added sugar, or refined sugars, in everything from cooking sauces to ready meals, to canned soup that Action against Sugar has a problem with – these and the huge amounts of sugar encountered in many popular soft drinks.

They say that added sugar is, like tobacco, “completely unnecessary” and, like tobacco, has to go. 

“[Sugar] is of equal importance to tobacco in terms of representing a cause of major disease and death which is completely preventable,” Professor Capewell told The Independent. “In the same way tobacco was around for decades and people slowly came to understand the harms, we’re probably now with sugar where we were with tobacco in the 1980s – we know it’s a bad thing, we know we ought to do something.”

“Refined sugars represent empty calories, they have zero nutritional value. Until about 200 years ago sugar simply didn’t exist in the UK food market. Going further back, our forebears were hunter-gatherers. That’s what our bodies are built for – wandering round eating nuts and berries and the occasional antelope. Sugar? Maybe raiding a bees nest once a year perhaps. Our bodies are not used to it, and it’s not natural.”

The food industry contends that singling out sugar is scientifically unsound and will harm wider health messages about achieving a balanced diet.

Responding to the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies’ suggestion that the UK may have to consider a sugar tax in the future, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said earlier this week that “there is no single or simple solution” to the obesity problem, adding that, through the Government’s voluntary Responsibility Deals, they are already working to cut sugar, just as they have done with salt and saturated fats.

The FDF added that “any additional taxation of food will hit the poorest families hardest at a time they can least afford it.”

Changing advice on diets has certainly created a hugely complicated web of sometimes conflicting advice. This week alone academics at the University of Southern California have suggested that eating too much animal protein – from things like meat and eggs – can be as bad for us as smoking, while US cardiovascular scientist claims today [Thursday] that carbohydrates, not saturated fats are responsible for the obesity epidemic in his country.

Action on Sugar that focusing on added sugar, while not being a silver bullet, would bring achievable reductions in obesity without confusing consumers.

They claim that if major manufacturers committed to gradually reduce the amount of sugar in their products, adding up to a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in sugar content within three to five years, the obesity epidemic could be “halted or reversed”.

“The food industry say Government has no business interfering in families, we must protect personal choice,” Professor Capewell said. “We say there is no personal choice. At the moment, a mother can walk into a supermarket with a choice of four tomato soups – with three, or four, or five teaspoons of sugar in them. She has a choice of thousands of ready meals – with five, or six, or even nine teaspoons of sugar in.

“We think the Government should stand up and protect children, we think that responsible companies should stand up and protect children.”

Killer foods: The current hitlist

Salt

While chefs may champion its cause, Britain’s salt intake has been dramatically reduced in recent years. Its links to high blood pressure are well documented and the WHO has said salt reduction is of equal importance to stopping smoking. Anchovies, bacon, cheese and chicken nuggets are among the worst salt offenders.

Saturated fats

They raise cholesterol in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease. The NHS says that most Britons eat too much of the fats – found in butter, lard, pies, cakes, meats, cheese and cream. Doctors recommend eating oily fish, nuts seeds, fruit and vegetables as a source of unsaturated fats.

Carbohydrates

They provide the majority of calories consumed in a day (between 45 and 65 per cent) but when consumed in large amounts can have health impacts. Yesterday, a US expert argued that carbohydrates were to blame for a surge in diabetes and obesity.

Protein

A new study revealed that middle-aged people who eat protein-rich food were four times more likely to die of cancer than someone who only eats a little. Researchers said proteins derived from animals were “nearly as bad as smoking”. A high-protein diet was defined as one in which 20 per cent of calories came from protein. They recommended 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's First World War footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during the war. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end